Ghost Stories Tour - Week Six
Updated: Feb 24
BRIGHTON THEATRE ROYAL, UK
11th February - 15th February 2020
The Theatre Royal in Brighton is the only venue on our 16 week tour that I’ve actually worked at before. Alas not in an acting capacity, but in almost every other department; barman, usher, stage door keeper and as crew. A mate and I bought a flat in Hove around the mid 2000’s and I managed to get a part time job at the 200 year old beauty. The job was ideal; the days were free for me to travel to London for auditions and the evenings were spent watching a variety of different plays. I learnt loads from seeing its diverse programme of shows and enjoying great actors do their stuff night after night. I could nick the occasional ice cream, flirt with the box office staff and even get to have a post show drink with an actor or two in the Colonnade pub just next door (Where I also worked as the world’s worst cellar man).
I only lasted about three summers in Brighton. I was extremely ‘socially active’ at this point and was in grave danger of literally liquifying my assets. I’d pop out for a loaf of bread and disappear for days into the elegantly wasted bohemia of the place. I think the seaside can do that to someone – It makes one think that every day is a holiday! More work started to come in from London and so, for the sake of my liver, I decided to move up the A23 to the big city. I call this period in my life the ‘Wilderness Years’. It was not big or clever…But it was bloody good fun!
So strolling from the train station toward the theatre at lunchtime on Tuesday was a trip down lost memory lane – reminding me of evenings that I can’t remember. I was feeling fresh from two days off and raring to go. I met Lloyd and Paul at the station who too looked relaxed and ready for week six of scaring the nation.
The Theatre Royal, like the Ambassador’s in London, is a hemp house. A lot of theatres today have an electrical flying system so, at a touch of a button, using a series of motors and cables, the scenery can fly up above the stage and a new backdrop descend taking the audience from a drawing room in a mansion to a desolate heath on the moors all in the blink of an eye. Brighton uses a different system. Its technique, the oldest form of scene flying, uses manila hemp ropes which are operated by people stood on the grid high above the stage. A process utilising a mixture of lines, counterweights and good old brute strength. Many years ago, ex sailors were usually employed as flymen because the rigging system used in the theatre had similar nautical origins to those used in the sailing and shipping worlds. The crew would communicate and cue scene changes using a series of coded whistles. This is why a lot of older actors consider it bad luck to whistle on stage – The worry being that it might confuse the fly floor into changing the scenery at the wrong time and thus resulting in a sandbag the size of a fridge being dropped on your nut. Nowadays, luckily for us habitual whistlers, the stage crew use radio headsets to take their orders from our DSM Tamsin who calls the show.
I’d been given The Simpson’s Suite as my boudoir this week. It is stage left of the proscenium and has a huge picture of my favourite actor, Richard Burton, hanging outside the door opposite and an equally camp one of Marlene Dietrich outside of mine. Hopefully a good omen for a successful run. John Baldock, the theatre manager (He was also the governor when I worked here years ago) offered us a warm welcome, invited us for press night drinks and gave a slight tongue in cheek warning about the Coronavirus which last week claimed a victim from the town. We all nodded, antibacced and gravely started the tech run.
I don’t mind tech runs. Antony Sher calls them ‘acting without having to act.’ It does take the pressure off slightly. A good chance to play with the rhythm of the script a little without worrying about it failing as, usually, the audience is made up of only a few technical bods milling around the stalls – All of whom are concerned with their own departments and not with your acting.
It’s still strange to me that I’m lucky enough to be doing the show at all. I have auditioned for two different productions of it. In the Birmingham blog, I mentioned how Andy Nyman and I met when he visited my drama school some 20 years ago. We had stayed in touch over the years and, in 2014 Andy invited me to see him appear in the Sondheim musical Assassins at the Chocolate Factory. It was a stunning production. After the show, we met for supper and he asked if I was working. I told him I wasn’t. He suggested I get my agent to put me up to audition for a role in Ghost Stories which was then at the Arts Theatre in town. They were recasting it for the rest of its run. I jumped at it straight away and called my then representative, Nancy, to set up a meeting. This was it! My first stage work in a decade and it was to be in the West End. Not too shabby.
A date was set up the following week for me to give a reading at the Actor’s Centre. I received a section of the script to learn and I was to meet Andy, co-writer Jeremy Dyson and the producer Marylin Eardley. A few days before, I’d booked tickets to see the play again as it had been four years since I last enjoyed it. It was the middle of December and I remember the many Christmas shoppers bustling around Covent Garden as we entered the theatre. It had really stood the test of time and seeing it again made me want the role even more.
On the day of the meeting, I was actually almost sick with nerves. I’d dressed up for the part though – A beautifully fitted jacket, a pin striped shirt, A Windsor knotted tie in oxblood red (a subliminal nod to the horror theme of the play) and flannel trousers with the sharpest crease this side of Savile Row. All I had to do was keep them clear of my rising tide of vomit. I stood outside in the rain 40 minutes early trying not to notice the other hopeful faces coming out of the casting suite. Anathema to any actor is locking eyes with someone who’s vying for the same role. It can knock your confidence to the point of tears.
Just after 5pm I was ushered into a dance studio. A large mirror ran the full length of the wall forcing me to glance at my desperate face and affected smile. I took a seat on a squeaky plastic chair in front of the panel. I remember Andy on the left, the producer Marylin at the right end and Jeremy squeezed in the middle furiously scribbling into his notebook. What was he writing? I’d only just walked in! “Awful gait. Boot ugly. Dresses like a Lufthansa air steward.”
We spoke for a minute or two about my CV and Jeremy remarked that I’d twice worked on ChuckleVision. I then proceeded to tell them an anecdote about the Chuckle Brothers which I thought hilarious. Halfway through, however, I remembered that the ending to the story wasn’t actually that funny – and in fact possibly really offensive. I finished it anyway and got a surprising giggle from the panel. I read a couple of scenes with Andy, he gave notes, we read again and then it was over. I muttered something vapid like “Good luck with the project” as I shook their hands and then took time again to clock my basic face in the dance mirror as I left. Knee deep in neediness.
It was the quickest 'no' I’ve ever received. Within the hour Andy had emailed with the bad news. It was always going to be a long shot. However, despite my ill-judged story about Barry Chuckle, I had done my research, learnt the lines, dressed appropriately, taken notes well and had not totally disgraced myself. So my work was done. There’s a great thing on YouTube of Bryan Cranston speaking about auditions. He talks about how an actor isn’t a professional ‘Job getter’ – they are there simply to act. So an audition is really a very small performance for an audience of one or two people. It’s just an opportunity for you to show them what you’ve done with their script. If they like your character choices, they may offer to film you doing it and then paying you for it. They then either show that footage to an audience at the cinema or on TV. They might even ask you to do it eight times a week to a theatre full of people. As soon as the actor realises that 99% of an audition is out of their control, the pressure disappears. Would that I knew that back then.
Andy was brilliant of course. He said that I’d done a nice job but they were going to go with someone else. It was fine actually. I always give myself 24 hours to sulk, whinge and kick the metaphorical cat before taking a breath and moving on. Self-pity should be the 8th Deadly Sin in my opinion. I loathe it both in myself and in other people. To paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred; It destroys everything around it except itself. It is so easy to think that life is unfair, that one is under appreciated or hard done by, but to dwell on this is to do oneself an enormous disservice. Of course the worst aspect of all regarding self-pity is that it courses through the veins of actors like fire. It's so ironic that an actor’s skin has to be 9 inches thick in order to deal with losing a job, but also paper thin to actually do the acting bit.
The audiences in Brighton were fantastic. The best of the tour so far in my opinion. They were all really up for it; Listening and responding well. It makes such a difference to the show when we get the reaction we’re after. I remember a warm-up man saying to a TV audience during a sit-com recording – “We can’t hear your smiles!”. It just gives the actors something to work with. An acknowledgement that the scare/joke/story has landed.
Commuting again meant that I missed out on some fun post show shenanigans with the rest of the company. But I was happy with that as it meant I got to sleep in my own bed every night and saw Louisa every morning – Albeit very briefly. I met Lloyd for coffee and cake in the famous Brighton Lanes most afternoons. He would tell me all about their boozy 2am finishes.
On Friday afternoon, some of us went on a company shopping trip to a fantastic antique/collector’s market called Snooper’s Paradise. And it was paradise. I spent way too much money on a selection of things I had no idea I needed; A 1970’s desk calendar, an old book about a rat and a coat hanger from the 1950’s!
Claire had also introduced ‘Secret Cupid’ for Valentine’s Day. The conceit was simple – Draw a name out of a hat and anonymously deliver that person a card or gift before the first show on Friday. I pulled Josh Higgott. He is absolutely impeccable as Goodman. When we’re in a scene together, I sometimes find myself watching him as an audience member instead of the actor playing opposite him. My brain starts thinking; “Wow! You’re very good aren’t you Josh? Look at what you do with that gesture or how you inflect that line. Very clever!” I then remember that it’s my turn to talk and I panic.
He read at Cambridge and studied at LAMDA so has received the best available training. What Valentine gift could I possibly give to such an academically minded and theatrically talented actor of his calibre? I had only one choice - I Photoshopped his face onto a card of Demi Moore’s body in Ghost and wrote a filthy limerick inside of course. I’m pretty sure it was filed away in his dressing room bin within minutes of his opening it.
I received a card with some suitably mucky poems inside which made me smile. I have a suspicion who came up with my Cupid stunt. It was actually quite tame in comparison to some of the others that were read out. Lloyd’s card was so rude, it could‘ve killed a nun! As the weeks have gone on, we’ve established lots of different games, rituals and in jokes as a company. It’s all part of the touring process, I guess. It reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously and creates a safe environment in which we can hopefully take risks.
The final show on Saturday was pretty much sold out. 868 people braved Storm Dennis to watch us finish week six of the tour. A great atmosphere and warm curtain call. Then it was time to hang up the suit (on my new expensive antique coat hanger), pack my bag for the truck and Gatwick Express it back to Victoria for two days off ahead of next week’s big adventure.
I've fallen in love with Brighton all oven again it seems. I think I actually prefer coastal holiday spots in winter; the faded shop fronts, the bracing air and the wild sea. As cold as it was walking up the hill toward the station, I thnk our next town will be worse. It will be our largest venue to date with 1691 seats waiting to be filled; The winding canals and flat vowels of Manchester.